Drivers take care of business at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Those boys behaved.
The drivers not only policed themselves in Sunday's Daytona 500, they put on a better show by far than they would or could have with NASCAR officials dictating how they could race, and scrutinizing every move on the track.
Liberated racing, which NASCAR had declared in January for this season, produced a race-record number of leaders, 21, Jamie McMurray being the last.
Liberated racing also produced not one "big one." Think about that: There were no massive pileups in not only NASCAR's race of races but its plate race of plate races, and therefore the one most likely to produce hyperaggressive foolishness.
"Early on in the race, you could see a lot of give-and-take," McMurray said after he recovered from being the most emotionally overcome winner of this race in memory. "If there's a small hole, guys were giving room.
"When it comes down to the last few laps, it's not that way."
"At the end, you got to go," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who'd demonstrated that with an electrifying (a la his late father) charge from 22nd to second in the two green-white-checkered overtimes.
And throughout his bumping, scraping, sometimes-sideways onslaught, "I never once felt like I had NASCAR looking over my shoulder," Earnhardt said.
Pity this best Daytona 500 in a while got such a hole knocked in it by a pothole. People in the sold-out grandstands (enormously important, in these hardest of times for NASCAR in its grown-up era) and TV viewers were left with the blah taste of two long delays, red-flag cautions totaling more than two hours, to fix the pothole just off Turn 2 of Daytona International Speedway.
Otherwise they'd have come away from their seats and their sets delighted, convinced that NASCAR had heard their massive outcry for a better show and had, at least on the plate tracks, fixed the problem by simply letting racers race (what a concept!).
(And if you think the racing was good in the three stints totaling 520 miles that broke out around the red-flag intermissions, just wait'll they get to the next plate race, at Talladega on April 25, when those misbegotten wings are replaced by spoilers, a change that promises to bring back the storied slingshot passing of yore.)
It was liberated racing, pure and simple, and absolutely, that put McMurray in Victory Lane. How else could the offseason pairing of hard-knocks McMurray with hard-knocks Earnhardt Ganassi Racing win the biggest race of the season, right out of the box, than with ongoing bumping and shoving from Greg Biffle that last season would have been illegal?
McMurray and his old boss Chip Ganassi had reunited out of necessity, with McMurray being squeezed out at Roush Fenway Racing last year, and Ganassi in need of a teammate for Juan Pablo Montoya after Martin Truex Jr. had moved on to better-financed Michael Waltrip Racing.
"We have to spend our money a little wiser than some teams," Ganassi acknowledged. "I'm not ashamed of that at all."
Even McMurray had once bailed on the austere Ganassi budget, moving to Roush in 2006.
"This was his second first win with us," Ganassi cracked, quite accurately. In 2002, as a rookie, McMurray had won at Charlotte, "and that was a pretty emotional day as well for us," Ganassi said.
But their hasty reunion during the offseason was facilitated by McMurray's familiarity with almost everyone at the Ganassi shop. And their sudden success in the Daytona 500 was rammed home by McMurray's friend and erstwhile Roush teammate, Biffle.
Biffle bumped McMurray from behind on the final restart, kept shoving him in a controlled way -- Biffle might have been best of all at policing himself with pizzazz -- and then gave McMurray an enormous push down the backstretch that separated them from the scrambling pack.
McMurray took it on home from there, though rattled at the sudden sight of Earnhardt in his mirror on the last lap. Earnhardt couldn't get to him in time.
Oh, and there were the liberated engines, with larger restrictor plates that brought breathtaking closing velocities that, combined with freedom to bump-draft, "sort of put the racing back in the drivers' hands," as Earnhardt said.
"The plate was awesome," Earnhardt continued. "I like going faster. You know, hopefully, when we start racing these things with the spoiler, it will change something else that everybody will like."
That would be the slingshot pass, the shooting of a car, solo, without any help from behind, past another car. It's a thrill Earnhardt has never known in his career, and one his father experienced only briefly, early in his career, in the late 1970s.
Early in the advent of the COT, some drivers and builders opined that the new car would have brought back the slingshot immediately, had not NASCAR opted for the wing instead of the spoiler.
Now the spoiler is coming back this spring, and that should put the racing not only more in the drivers' hands but in the individual driver's hands -- he won't have to depend so much on a drafting line to push him.
All this bright hope, out of the gate of the 2010 season, was dampened in the minds of fans by one lousy pothole -- one that was the fault of neither NASCAR nor the speedway. It really wasn't.
The hole likely was gouged out by the cars themselves.
"I know a couple guys were hitting [on] the trailer arm mounts," Earnhardt said. "That's probably what started it in the first place."
The first time the race was red-flagged, "the delay in repairs was caused by unusually cold ambient temperature [44 degrees in the shadows]," said speedway president Robin Braig.
The first patch didn't set properly, necessitating the second red. That time track workers used a synthetic material long used -- and joked about in racing circles -- to patch the battered cars of shoestring teams.
"We used Bondo," Braig admitted.
It wasn't that NASCAR and the track were unprepared. They always are, for such flaws in the pavement, at every race. It was just that the unusual cold in Florida thwarted standard procedure.
"Well, sure," Braig admitted. "We're the World Center of Racing. This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen."
But the one thing racetracks cannot control is weather. Usually it's rain. This time it was cold. Think of it that way.
Cut NASCAR and the speedway a little slack for this one. Try to remember the vastly improved racing and not the long, forced intermissions.
And know that all in all, the 2010 season has dawned brighter at Daytona than any in recent years.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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